Chronicling a bizarre saga of glamour, obsessive love, grotesque violence and miscellaneous weirdness that has entertained New York City tabloid readers over four decades, “Crazy Love” lands soundly in the stranger-than-fiction realm. Dan Klores’ straightforward, conventional docu style couldn’t make anything special of the uninspired subject of his debut feature “The Boys of 2nd Street Park,” but subsequent “Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story” had a powerful true story to tell — which is even more the case here. Sundance pickup by Magnolia Pictures gambles that outsized personalities will lure viewers into hardtops despite the pic’s pubcast style.
Once you hear the barest outline of this real-life tragicomic opera, it’s hard not to want allthe dirt. Though accused of ambulance chasing (and eventually disbarred), Bronx-raised lawyer Burt Pugach grew rich as “the genius of negligence laws,” getting fat settlements for sometimes questionably injured clients while seldom entering a courtroom.
And though at the time he resembled geeky comic actor Arnold Stang, he managed a life that was the apex of 1950s high style: a new Cadillac convertible every year, private plane, his own first-class nightclub and a succession of beautiful dames.
But the womanizing stopped when Pugach spied Linda Riss sitting on a park bench. He reportedly said, “I have to have her,” and proved all too true to his word.
The 21-year-old Bronx lass was naive and movie-star gorgeous. She was willing to be squired around by an older suitor who wasn’t so handsome, but showered her with gifts, nightlife and flattery. Like any good girl of the era, however, she wasn’t going to go all the way before marriage.
Unfortunately, Burt was hiding a long-suffering wife and disabled daughter. When Linda found out, he insisted he’d already filed for divorce. When that too proved false, she broke off contact.
When news of her engagement to a regular guy reached Burt, (now looking utterly crazed in archival photos) he vowed the classic, “If I can’t have her no one will.” He hired three thugs who threw acid at Linda’s face. She emerged disfigured and partially blinded.
The media had a field day. Despite his using every trick in the legal book to delay trial, Burt was finally sentenced to 30 years in prison. He served less, emerging with his obsession fully intact. Linda, meanwhile, had receded into premature spinsterhood.
It’s the many things which happened after his release that turn “Crazy Love” from a compellingly lurid flashback into a portrait of world-class eccentricity, duly exciting the attention of a disbelieving media as recently as 1996.
Still flamboyant-looking despite advanced age and now completely blind, Linda is a take-no-prisoners interviewee. Burt is a disturbing one: Even now he seems to feel no remorse. Veteran journo Jimmy Breslin is the most amusingly insightful among the various friends, associates and observers interviewed.
There’s no lack of vivid archival footage to underline the story’s bizarrely public nature, including the protags’ appearances on “The Mike Douglas Show” and “Geraldo.” While the competent filmmaking package lacks much of its own personality, the sheer fascinating strangeness of the people documented could earn the pic a minor cult following a la “Grey Gardens.” Thesp-turned-producer Fisher Stevens is credited separately as a co-director.